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The risk of taking risks

You hear this all the time in your improv classes – you need to take more risks on stage. But what improv teachers forget to tell you is that when you take risks, you’re going to feel feelings: anger, sadness, anxiety, fear, shame and, in rare cases, joy. This is a by-product of taking risks, and the quicker you accept this, the quicker you will increase your chances of taking more of them in your life and on stage.

If you take a risk and feel shame afterwards, like “Oh man, I went too far,” don’t assume that means you did something wrong. You will feel uncomfortable because you did something different, not because it was necessarily “bad.”

In fact, the one thing I can tell you for sure is if you are taking risks, you are always succeeding, even if it may not feel like it, because it’s the practice of taking them that really counts, not the results.

Last Sunday I was interviewing Lyndsay Hailey for Improv Nerd. She was so honest and revealing, talking about sensitive subjects like being sexually abused when she was a kid, her adrenal fatigue syndrome and her dating struggles. Lyndsay was taking huge risks, and if she knew it or not, she was inspiring me to join her. That’s how it works.

Towards the end of the interview, I asked her about her current boyfriend, and she started to answer the question and then interrupted herself and said “He’s in the audience.” So I asked him to come up on stage. The audience gasped, and the message in my head was, “You are going too far.” But I lucked out that he also was an improviser, and I’m sure he appreciated the extra stage time.

“What’s going on with the relationship?” I asked. The audience gave me an even louder gasp than first one, and I think: “Shit, why didn’t I play it safe?”

Everyone in the audience was uncomfortable, including me. I got the sense from her boyfriend’s answer that he was ambivalent about his relationship with Lyndsay. So I asked him if they had sex too soon in the relationship. At this point, my producer, Ben Capraro, was so uncomfortable he had to leave the room.

I was lost at sea. Lyndsay’s boyfriend diffused the situation with a joke, and then she said she was grateful her boyfriend had been around while she was uncovering her past with sexual abuse. Finally I felt like could see land in the distance, thank god, and I focused back on Lyndsay for the rest of the interview.

When I got off stage I felt excited. The show was everything I had envisioned Improv Nerd to be: vulnerable, real, edgy. It certainly was a different show than I normally do, and I didn’t get the usual “Great show!” comments I have come to expect from the audience, and because of that, I was confused.

On the ride home, my wife, Lauren, said “I bet you’re high from the show?”

“Actually, I’m not,” I said, like a little league right fielder who dropped the routine fly ball to lose the championship game.

I was filled with fear, shame, sadness and anxiety. I began second guessing my instinct to bring Lyndsay’s boyfriend up on stage. Never trust your feelings in this case. You could be feeling them for a million reasons, and one of them might be that it actually paid off. You cannot measure your risks by whether or not they “succeed,” only by the frequency that you take them.

Sometimes risks do not pay off immediately, and sometimes the results of taking a risk come weeks later, in another show or another audition, or in your life.

The important thing is to keep taking them, and you’ll know that if you are having feelings afterward, you’ve hit gold.

Your Pain is Your Gold

We have all experienced a fair amount of pain in our lives — from our parents getting divorced to being picked on in school or breaking up with someone.

Most improvisers want to avoid thinking about their pain, thinking it’s not appropriate because they’re doing comedy. The problem is not that we have pain, it’s how we use it.

Instead of getting rid of our pain or denying it, we need to bring it on stage with us, and by doing that, we not only get rid of it, we can create something memorable.

One of my favorite acting teachers is Kathy Scambiatterra at The Artistic Home in Chicago, and she would say to us in class “Your pain is your gold.” This is as true for improv as it is for acting, or for any other art form. That pain she was talking about is what makes us unique as artists.

Recently one of my students in my Advanced Improv Class was doing a scene where he was playing a father and another student was playing his daughter. They made the discovery in the scene that the father was going to divorce the mother. One game in the scene that seemed to emerge was that the father was blaming the daughter for the separation. All he had to do was heighten this by laying on the blame to his daughter even thicker and not taking any responsibility for the divorce. Pretty straight forward.

As I side coached the students to follow this direction, he seemed to resist. Afterwards he explained why. He said he had come from a divorced household and his parents had blamed him for their divorce. Because of his bravery to talk about this in class, he had chance to heal something from his life that was limiting him on stage.

All actors and improvisers have blind spots, and it is our job to correct them so we can see more opportunities on stage.

I had a chance to try this out when I was cast in an independent film called Stash, where I played a character that people thought was a pedafile, but who was actually a clown-afile. He had a room in the basement of his mother’s house where he got off to all these clowns and circus memorabilia.

The joke was he was into clowns not kids. Even though I had been cast, I resisted because I was sexually abused when I was 14 by my junior high history teacher, and playing that part triggered me. I didn’t want to play a perpatrator of any kind. I was scared and uncomfortable. What would people think?

But avoiding taking the part was not the answer. Instead, I had to face this issue, because it was obviously something I needed more healing around and because it was blocking me on stage and in life.

I was not even aware how this was limiting me in my acting until I started to speak about in therapy. I brought it up to my crazy shrink who said, “Why wouldn’t you want to play this part?”

“Why would I want to play a part of someone who did such a horrible things to me?” I asked. My therapist convinced me that playing a part I was terrified to play was an opportunity to heal from my sexual abuse. My moving toward my pain, I could correct a blind spot that would give me more range as actor.

I was full of fear but decided to do it. It turned out to be a lot of fun and the director/writer allowed me to improvise and said “Your lines are better than mine” — one of the greatest compliments you can give an improviser.

I was grateful I did it because I was not even aware how much I was avoiding this subject matter until I was confronted with it. It helped me tremendously as an actor and as a teacher, because now I have had this experience and can now share with you. That is priceless.